October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
Do me a favor, would you? Imagine standing in front of a huge meadow full of tall grass and wildflowers dancing in a soft breeze. You can hear crickets and cicadas singing in the deep grass. Now turn your computer’s volume to about half and click on the arrow in the image below. (You’ll hear a little of the wind in the microphone.)
There! That’s a bit of what it’s been like at Charles Ilsley Park in the last few glorious weeks of August. Goldfinches sing as they swoop in their roller coaster flights across the fields that are burnished with goldenrod. Butterflies, with golden wings fluttering, sip sweet nectar from the giant thistles. And all of this gilded beauty is backed by the sounds of a summer breeze sighing in your ear and the buzz of cicadas and crickets. That’s about as close to pure glory as my life affords.
The Glow Began in July…
Let’s just say the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) got magnificently carried away in the central meadow at Ilsley. Perhaps the contractor who planted wild seed last year had a wee bit too much of them in the mix? But I didn’t hear anyone complain when the meadow was literally blanketed in black and gold. By early August, they had browned, leaving behind seeds that will provide nourishment for migrators and winter birds.
Nature Comes Back with a Second Wave of Gold
In their place, though not quite as abundant, came a close relative, the buttery yellow Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba). Instead of a single flower on each stem like their black-eyed cousins, these Susans produce branching stems with profuse, but smaller blossoms which create a similar sunny effect.
Of course, August always brings waves of different Goldenrods to keep the gold coming in late summer. Right now, I commonly see three different ones: the cascades of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its ramrod stems lined with clinging oval leaves and bouquet-like sprays of Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) which is from a different genus of the Aster family. Later in the month, we’ll begin to see the upright, lemon yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) doing its part to keep the fields golden right into September. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A stately plume of Canada Goldenrod
Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its fancy stalk lined with oval leaves
Grass-leaved goldenrod is really an aster, despite its common name.
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
The Gray-headed/Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) add their droopy charm to the fields too, though their best days are behind them for this season. And the tall spikes of Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) are topped by gold blossoms that stay open from evening until early morning, and later on cloudy days as well.
I love how native plants host so many insects in an era when the insect world is suffering from plunging numbers all over the planet. Here two False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) standing next to each other hosted a Soldier Beetle (Cantharidae family) and the nymph of a Katydid (Tettigoniida family). Have a closer look at the amazing length of the katydid’s antennae by clicking on the right photo. One of the ways you can tell a grasshopper from a katydid is that grasshoppers have much shorter antennae than the very long, fine ones you’ll see on the nymph below.
Out in the far west of the park at the edge of the woods, a tall, striking, yellow flower with very unusual blossoms caught my eye. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, identified it for me as Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) – and indeed, its flat stem had narrow “wings” on either side. Wingstem flower heads cluster at the top of the 3′-8′ stem. Each bloom is actually a flower within a ring of flowers. The “disc florets” in this plant are the tube-shaped flowers that thrust outward from the center of the flower head. What looks like a ring of petals around the central disc is actually a ring of “ray florets” and each of them is an individual flower that has the ability to produce its own seed. In botany, “florets” are individual flowers within a flower head, whereas what we see as individual petals on ray flowers are really three petals fused together. And how about those curly little stigmas that we see whimsically protruding from the ends of the disc florets! What a fun wildflower!
Wingstem has a limited distribution in Michigan, so we’re lucky to have them. These Charles Ilsley Park plants grew from seeds that Ben collected at the township’s Blue Heron Environmental Area, which was the only place he’s seen them in the township. It’s exciting to know that the seeds Ben planted at Ilsley have taken hold, so that we now have two parks in which this unusual native plant has found a home.
Birds Matching the Black and Gold Landscape
Let’s Start with A Goldfinch Saga!
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) – Unlike most other birds, Goldfinches start mating around mid- to late-July when the thistles bloom, which is a source for both nesting material and food for them. Once the first broods fledge in early August, most Goldfinches mate a second time.
On August 9, Mike and Joan Kent, birding friends, took a walk at Ilsley and spotted a nest in a thistle. Joan peeked in and saw 3 eggs. They noticed a lot of Goldfinches nearby and assumed it was probably the nest of one of them. And that was that, until…
On our Wednesday bird walk on August 21, Vinnie Morganti, another member of our bird group, spotted the same nest located within the thorny stems of a tall Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). A Goldfinch’s cup nest is woven from plants and root fibers and lashed to a bush or plant with spider silk. Then it’s lined with thistle down which makes it close to waterproof inside. A small masterpiece. This pair chose a location which probably deterred predators, though it may have been a bit hard on the parents’ wings while feeding!
Peeking into the nest, I discovered 4 baby birds. Fellow birder, Tom Korb, got a photo of the blind and slightly fuzzy hatchlings by valiantly sticking his cellphone into the thistle above them. Tom and I decided to share monitoring these little birds until they fledged and report our findings to Cornell’s Nestwatch , a citizen science site we use for our township nest boxes.
We bird monitors are trained not to go to a nest more often than every 3 – 5 days. So when I returned to the park the following day, I stood far off looking through a long lens. Imagine my delight when I saw one little head popping up above the nest! I don’t know if it could see the meadow yet. Perhaps it was just enjoying the breeze ruffling its Einstein hairdo!
I came back to monitor on August 24 hoping to get a photo inside the nest despite the thistle’s thorns. I’d brought along the fancy, black leather gloves my mother had given me years ago to wear to the theater – but here I was using them to reach inside a thistle! I could picture my mom laughing and shaking her head – but the gloves worked beautifully! In the photo, I could see the opened eye of at least one little nestling, though the rest were snoozing in their sturdy nest cup. It appeared that the beige tips of feathers might be emerging from their dark sheaths. We think now that they were about a week old in this photo. They’d come a long way from those blind babies in just 3 days!
At our August 28 bird walk in another park, Mike Kent told us about his wife seeing the nest at Charles Ilsley Park on August 9. Good news for us monitors, because that allowed us to use the guidelines on the Nestwatch site to estimate the age of the Goldfinch hatchlings more accurately. After the bird walk, I accompanied Tom on his monitoring trip to the Ilsley nest. What a change! Little heads peered up over the nest edge – eyes and beaks open. According to the Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), during their first week after hatching, Goldfinch nestlings are quiet but will silently reach up for food if the edge of the nest is tapped. In the second week, these nestlings begin making a lot of noise – but wisely only do so when a parent arrives with food. Tom got a great photo of the bright red mouth of a begging, but silent, youngster!
That day, all the nestlings, now about 11 days old, looked bright and alert, peeking out into the world and fully feathered. The Stokes Guide explained that those white blobs on the nest are fecal sacs, the avian equivalent of soiled diapers. Goldfinch nestlings are quite fastidious. The first week after the young hatch, adults carry the waste sacs away from the nest. But starting in the second week, little goldfinches back up to the edge of the nest and drop these little packages over the side!
My last turn at monitoring the nest was on August 31 – and the nest was empty. The nestlings had become fledglings. Our estimate is that they fledged on their 12th or 13th day after hatching. The nest was remarkably clean inside (if not outside) which might have meant a healthier, more comfortable environment for the nestlings.
I could hear a fledgling begging far off in a stand of thistle and through my binoculars, I thought I saw a couple of small birds fluttering among the stems. A female flew in among the thistle, perhaps feeding “our” fledglings from her second brood. A male seemed to be on sentinel duty nearby before he flew off to gather more seed. Off into the world for our Goldfinch fledglings! And the end of our nesting saga.
Hard-working Goldfinch Adults
While the females incubate a second brood, male Goldfinches are on their own in feeding the first brood – which can be as many as seven fledglings, according to Cornell’s nestwatch.org! Begging calls of first brood youngsters could be heard a week ago as young fledglings pursued their harried parents around the park or called from the treelines to be found. This little Goldfinch fledgling seemed a bit more mellow than the rest.
The Goldfinches’ primary food source is thistle seed so I’ve seen males all over the fields with thistle down (pappus) hanging from their beaks. They dig industriously into the seedhead, pull out the down, carefully nibble off the seeds and then let the down fly. Stokes informed me that they feed partially digested seed to their young, as they also do for the mate during her first week on the nest. Quite a responsibility!
More Gold and Black Birds!
In a bush in the far west meadow, I saw a flash of yellow and took a quick couple of shots as a bird perched for a moment and then flew. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Local birding expert, Ruth Glass, identified it as a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula.) She told me that by now most of our summer orioles have left for Central or South America with their young, so the one I saw was likely a migrator from further north.
The birding group saw other birds sporting lovely yellow trim. A trio of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched far above in a bare tree. Through binoculars, two clearly had the yellow bellies and yellow tail bands that identify this handsome bird. Juveniles have a fainter black mask and some brown streaking on the breast, but in this distant photo against a gray sky, it’s hard to tell if any of them were juveniles or adults .
Ruth Glass also helped me identify a strange looking dark bird that mystified me. She said she was “95% sure” it was a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) molting from his brilliant blue breeding colors into his mostly brown non-breeding colors which are similar to the female Bunting. This mottled look is common for males during the molt. I would never have guessed! Thank you, Ruth!
Some large dark brown birds also added contrast to all the gold around them. A trio of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) rested on a broken snag near the edge of the center field. Through the trees on my way into the park, I saw one of them spreading its magnificent wings to the sunlight. They do this to warm them, stretch them, or to expose any bacteria on them to air and light.
Around the corner, two other vultures perched on a broken snag. This one made me smile, because it looked as though it was appealing for a little sympathy. I’m afraid vultures don’t get much appreciation, though I think their soaring flight is graceful and the cleanup services they provide are crucial. Really, though, the bird was just preparing to preen.
The first vulture suddenly flew straight up in the air and landed rather awkwardly on a branch that was much too short. It fluttered clumsily right, then left, until it finally found its footing. Is it my imagination or are the other two a bit embarrassed by the graceless landing skills of their compatriot? Probably, my imagination…. (Tap arrow to play and to pause for reading captions.)
Butterflies Complement the Color Scheme
This August the huge, dramatic Giant Swallowtail butteflies (Papilio cresphontes) arrived in Charles Ilsley Park in large numbers. One afternoon about two weeks ago, perhaps a dozen of them landed delicately on the large purple blooms of Bull Thistle, or hovered in front of them, extending their long proboscises to sip while avoiding the thorns. I don’t know if this thistle is a favorite plant for these big butterflies or if they were just the biggest blooms with the most nectar when they arrived. They chased each other over the fields, creating a shimmer of gold and black all over the central meadow.
You’ll note that the one above has a few missing pieces on its wings and that the black edges look a bit worn. I compared the very tattered dorsal (upper) side of one I saw on thistle at Charles Ilsley Park in late August with the fine specimen I saw on Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in late July a couple of years ago. I wondered if the difference in wear and tear was due to feeding among thorny thistles or perhaps just the normal battering big wings take after an extra month of foraging and mating. I’m guessing a bit of both.
These dramatic swallowtails have expanded their range further north since about 2001 when first frosts became more uncommon in September – perhaps an effect of global warming. They lay their eggs on plants that will act as hosts for their larvae, which includes two of our abundant natives, Swamp Milkweed and the Solidago genus of Goldenrods.
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) made its elegant contribution to the black-and-gold meadows. These high-flyers raise 2-3 broods each summer. Their caterpillars spin a remarkable chrysalis that matches dead wood very closely. It’s held in place by a thin string of silk on one end of the chrysalis and a silk pad at the other. That’s where the caterpillar spends the winter. There’s a remarkable photo of a Tiger Swallowtail’s chrysalis at the bottom of this Wikipedia page. Be sure to click on it to enlarge so you can tell where the bark ends and the chrysalis begins! My photo below shows the tiny hairs on the swallowtail’s wings – the closest my camera has ever come to a Tiger Swallowtail, I think.
Three small Lepidopterans played a role in the color scheme. Like the members of the Swallowtail family (Papilio), a female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) found Bull Thistle a good choice for nectar in this transition time just before the Goldenrods reach their full glory and other fall asters emerge. I admit I appreciate the non-native Bull Thistles more this year, having seen how much sustenance they’re providing after a torrid July brought an earlier end to the bloom of so many wildflowers. A Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) paused on the drying leaves of a Queen Anne’s Lace. I’ve wanted to see a chrysalis of these small butterflies ever since I read it described as “yellow with a pink zipper”! No luck yet. And the Ctenucha Moth (Erebidae family) did a fine job of contrasting its black wings with the yellow Grass-leaved Goldrod.
Just like other swallowtails, the Black Swallowtail makes the most of bull thistles that thrived this year.
A Clouded Sulphur has black bands on the dorsal side of its wings.
A Ctenucha Moth on Grass-leaved Goldenrod
So much gold! And I didn’t even include the gold and black bumblebees, wasps and honey bees foraging among this late summer landscape! Such riches, eh?
Late Summer Serenity
Sometimes life does come full circle. Standing at the edge of the meadows at Charles Ilsley Park with sunlight falling on a fluttering, buzzing, golden landscape, I could feel the deep sense of calm and quiet that I relished in our township in my childhood. On just such a morning then, I would stand on the sturdy limbs of a rugged old tree overlooking a wild pond or spread my blanket in the short grass near the shore and breathe in the comforting scent of warm earth and grass. I feel so fortunate as an older woman to still experience that certainty of being part of something big and beautiful that nature offers all of us if we take the time. I wish that for you, too.
Postcript: Watch for More Ilsley Photos!
Of course, Charles Ilsley Park offered me much more than gold and black in its rich diversity: a wet spot in a field suddenly blooming with red and blue wildflowers, a fuzzy brown House Finch fledgling peeking through the greenery, lavender blossoms emerging from the seedbank where a moist swale was restored, a dramatic Darner dragonfly decorated in a pattern of blue and green and more. So rather than extend this blog, I’ll create a shorter photo blog later this week to fill in the rest of the color palette at Charles Ilsley Park. Hope you can drop by!
I never know what I’m going to see or hear when I head into Draper Twin Lake Park. A large marsh separates the park’s two halves. If I start in the west side of the park, the shady trail is lined with moisture-loving plants and ends up at the fishing dock by the blue expanse of the lake. If I park at the maintenance building in the eastern half of the park, I ponder whether to circle left, passing a floating mat marsh, or head straight north to the beautiful restored prairie.
All the choices are good ones, so let me share what’s blooming, buzzing and singing in Draper’s quilt of habitats. And then you can do your own choosing some summer afternoon.
The Western Section: A Shady, Short Stroll to the Lake… or the Case of the Disappearing Wildlife!
I feel a bit like the fisherman with his story about the “one that got away” in describing the western side of the park this June. Whether alone or with fellow birders, I heard a lot more than I saw – though some of what I saw was wonderful. You’ll see what I mean…
The trail from the parking lot was green and cool on a hot day. My first encounter was with a small Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) as I came around a bend in the trail. The bunny took one look at me and disappeared into the grass. In a fine article by naturalist Katie McKiernan in the Seven Ponds Nature Center newsletter, I learned more about the phrase “breed like rabbits.” The Cottontail female is usually pregnant while nursing her previous litter! They mate from March to August, so I’m guessing female rabbits look forward to the autumn! Since this year’s bunny dashed off without a selfie, here’s one from a few years ago that has the morning sun shining through its ears .
High in the treetops, hidden among the leaves, I could hear the signature “Drink Your Teeeeea” song of the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). Here’s my recording. You may need to turn up your volume a bit.
Despite some serious neck craning, neither I nor my fellow birders could spot any of the four we heard. But here’s a photo of one singing at Draper in 2017. All this lush foliage from the heavy rain is amazing, but not always the best for bird spotting!
On a bird walk back in March of this year, the birding group was excited to see a pair of Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) in a bare tree near the lake. We’d seen one near a nest there in 2016 and wondered if they had returned to nest near the lake again. What an impressive bird!
However, construction on a new house near the park border was making a lot of noise that morning and we wondered if that would affect their nesting. On my June trip, I hoped to see one, but wasn’t optimistic since we hadn’t spotted them with the bird group in April or May. While looking for the elusive Towhee, I caught site of a large, saucer-shaped nest high in a White Pine. The nest was difficult to see from every direction, a choice spot from a bird’s point of view..
The nest didn’t look used; in fact it didn’t look as though it had been completed. Perhaps another missing creature? If this is the hawks’ abandoned nest, let’s hope they found a peaceful spot farther from the sounds of hammers and nails.
Luckily, other wildlife and some elegant plants did appear along the way to the lake. Lush purple native Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) bloomed in the dappled light under the trees. What appeared to be a Metallic Green Sweat Bee (genus Agapostemon) was gathering pollen on its hind legs. The contrast of the bright yellow pollen against the purple blossom must be a great signal to pollinators!
And nearby, I was delighted to see a bee among the drooping, elegant blooms of Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum). Since this pollinator seemed to be collecting pollen by smoothing it across its abdomen, it may have been a Leafcutter Bee (family Apocrita).
I just have to show you this whole plant. Isn’t Tall Meadow Rue striking with its drooping pom poms?
As I neared the lake, I was greeted by a stand of giants, plants 4-8 feet tall with huge leaves. It turns out to be Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maxiumum), a plant that hosts huge numbers of bees, wasps, beetles and flies over the course of the summer. It’s a biennial which means it produces leaves, stems and roots one year, then flowers and seeds the next. Cow Parsnip can cause blisters or iritation if its sap on your skin is exposed to bright sunlight. But according to Wikipedia, Native Americans found many uses for it medicinally such as poultices from the roots for swelling or bruises and mosquito repellent from crushed leaves. They even made children’s flutes from this plant after removing the outer surface. Sounds like this beautiful and statuesque plant is best seen in its natural setting, though, not in my garden!
Down by Draper Lake, the Fragrant Water Lilies were beginning to bloom. The dragonflies will find them a great courting platform in the days to come, I imagine.
And among the aquatic plants near the fishing deck, a pair of Banded Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis fasciata) were already busy mating. The male clings to the stem and holds the head of the female. She clings to him, while curving her abdomen upward to receive the sperm. According to Wikipedia, this posture is appropriately called the heart or circle shape.
Since these dragonflies are in the Skimmer family (Libelluidae), the female will lay her eggs by “tapping the surface of the water repeatedly with her abdomen, by shaking the eggs out of her abdomen as she flies along, or by placing the eggs on vegetation.”
On the way back from lake, the birders and I saw an energetic little Chipping Sparrow(Spizella passerina) moving through the small trees. These small, pert sparrows with their chestnut cap and black eyeline prefer treed areas with open, grassy spaces – so you may have some on your lawn if you look closely!
A solitary walk one hot afternoon allowed me to share a moment with a young American Robin (Turdus migratorius). Where removal of invasive shrubs last year left some damp, open ground, the youngster landed and looked around. A Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) hiding in the shrubbery nearby sang its charming conversational collection of bird noises. I could never catch the Catbird out on a limb, so the Robin and I just spent a few quiet minutes together listening intently.
I discovered a modest little summer wildflower peeking out of the grass. Lots of insects drink nectar from the tiny blooms of White Avens (Geum canadense) and the leaves are hosts for the caterpillars of many of them as well.
A Midland Painted Turtle ((Chrysemys picta marginata) sat calmly tucked within its shell in the middle of the path as I headed back to the parking lot. I’m guessing it was a female looking for bare ground in which to dig a hole and lay her eggs. Though it wasn’t an ideal spot, I kept my opinion to myself and I left her to it.
The Eastern Section: A Longer Hike Among the Winged Beauties of a Sunny, Flowering Prairie
No question about which path to take this month! One Sunday, my husband and I headed straight out to the restored prairie, excited to see what was blooming and buzzing. Again this year, what a delight! Under a bright, blue sky, the slightest breeze made the thigh-high grass and wildflowers bow and sway to the musical accompaniment of bird song. What could be better?
On the Way to the Prairie
As we walked north, the music was supplied by two bright yellow birds. A male American Goldfinch at the tip of a snag trilled his quick, syncopated song that always seems to include a couple of loud “tweets.” And farther away, near the small marsh to the west, we spotted the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) who is more common this year than ever! The male loves to sing his “witchedy” song from shrubs or low limbs near a wetland. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
At our feet on the entrance path, a small American Painted Lady politely sat for her portrait in the short grass.
The Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia), an even smaller butterfly at less than an inch a half, was fluttering from one grass stem to another on the path, perhaps to thwart being snatched by a dragonfly or other predator. Finally it settled for more than a split second. Nice barbershop stripes on the antennae!
Birds of Various Sizes on the Prairie, including One Difficult Invasive Species
Reaching the prairie, I knelt among the tall grasses and wildflowers to take a shot and suddenly noticed the thin, gray neck and head of a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) just above the flower tops.
Actually, we ultimately saw three of them stalking slowly just under the crest of the flowering slope. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology informs me that in our region, juveniles stay with their parents until they nest again in April or May and then form foraging groups with other juveniles out on their own. Since these birds had adult plumage and were similar in size, I’m guessing this group may have been just such a cohort of young Sandhills.
On top of the hill, a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) defended her nest, perhaps from invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus). This Eurasian species, once called “English Sparrows,” have been ravaging some of the prairie nest boxes. Volunteer nest box monitors have found boxes with beheaded nestlings, an attack typical of House Sparrows, which compete with our native cavity nesting birds. House Sparrows can ruin the eggs or kill the young of bluebirds, tree swallows and other cavity nesters. When we find a box with eggs, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nestwatch program asks us to remove or addle them to help control the burgeoning House Sparrow population. Since they are so widespread and have such a harmful affect on native birds, they’re considered an invasive species and are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So although it makes us more than a bit squeamish, we monitors try to comply! (Thanks to iNaturalist photographer avepel for the House Sparrow photo.)
A female Bluebird defending her nestbox from predators like the House Sparrow.
House Sparrow by avepel (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org
A House Sparrow egg removed from the nest by a nestbox monitor
On a happier note, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) found some food for its young in the tall prairie grass, snagging what appeared to be a dragonfly. In my limited experience, Field Sparrows are shy during most of the summer. But when it’s time to lay the eggs and feed the young, they’re good providers and so are a bit more visible. You won’t see Field Sparrows in an urban or suburban setting like House Sparrows; they insist on wide open spaces! As a result, their numbers are currently in decline, so I’m glad we’re preserving prairie for them!
An EasternPhoebe (Sayornis phoebe) flew to the ground and returned to a branch, its tail characteristically pumping up and down, as it also looked for insects in the tall grass. I caught it just as it prepared for takeoff.
Dramatic Dragonflies, Tiny Pollinators, and Other Unfortunate Eggs
More native summer wildflowers bloom with each passing day as the restored prairie comes to full bloom. The color and scent are attracting little pollinators and the dragonflies looking for lunch! These three native wildflowers were planted as part of the prairie restoration and are particular favorites of mine.
With my birding partners, I saw my first ever Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) along the prairie loop path. Wow! We were all pretty impressed with this creature! The bright orange abdomen indicates a male and a young one, since the yellow spots near the wing tips turn red as they mature.
The elegant Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) landed along the loop path as well. The yellow and black abdomen indicates that it’s a juvenile and the just-developing white patches beside the dark wing patch means that this one is a juvenile male. With the birders, I saw another juvenile at a similar stage and when I got home, wondered if we’d seen one who’d narrowly escaped a predator. It seemed to be managing quite nicely, though, flying with no difficulty among the stalks of prairie grasses.
The Hoverflies (family Syrphidae) were busy finding nectar and inadvertently doing their large share of pollination.
Another little Hoverfly clasped the stamen of a non-native Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) blossom as it drank nectar. Dr. Parsons, the entomologist who helped me with hoverflies, says that hoverfly mouthparts are not like the long sipping straws of butterflies. Instead their mouthparts are soft with a hairy tip that sponges up nectar so that the mouth at the end of tip can draw it in. Normally the mouthparts are folded under the head, but they extend them like this little one is doing to reach for food. They can also liquify pollen with their saliva and drink it up as well. No wonder they distribute so much pollen!
One of the nest monitors reported seeing a Snapping Turtle ((Chelydra serpentina) laying eggs on the west edge of the north prairie. But when my husband and I came across a turtle nest along the western side, some hungry animal – perhaps a raccoon or coyote – had dug the eggs up for a meal. I can’t be sure we saw the Snapper’s nest. The egg remains look small enough to perhaps be those of a Painted Turtle or the much rarer Blanding’s Turtle (Emys blandingii ) that one of our bird monitors has seen twice on the trails as well.
And down in the short grass, a small Amber Snail (family Succineidae) moved languidly along the path, oblivious of all the prairie drama above. Isn’t it interesting that they have eyes on the end of those translucent tentacles on their heads?
Nature Asks that We Love It, Warts and All
It’s a temptation to romanticize who and what we love, isn’t it? For me, nature’s always been full of creativity, beauty, harmony – and I’m not wrong about that. Watch a cardinal stuff a seed into its mates beak to woo her. Or see a a mother raccoon cope with a treeful of young after a long night of foraging. Or learn how trees feed their young through the miraculous network of ancient underground fungi.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to accept that there’s a fierceness to nature, too – not just tornadoes and floods but everyday survival fierceness: an empty turtle nest; the caterpillar that consumes its live host; an owl swooping down on a baby rabbit; a dragonfly snatched by a field sparrow.
And then there are burgeoning invasive species introduced by humans: the house sparrow’s predation, the bittersweet vine choking the life out of trees, the zebra mussels changing the environment of the Great Lakes.
Nature’s solutions to life’s endless challenges and change may not always be pretty, but they have sustained our kind and all life on this planet for millennia. Each time I venture out into the natural world, I’m being shown the importance of honoring and preserving the complex, carefully balanced, interwoven systems that nature has worked out over eons. Until recently, humans were blind to those finely tuned systems and we have unwittingly done serious harm to them in multiple ways. But now we are beginning to see and understand what we’ve done. Now we know that these delicately balanced relationships can be restored if we have the will to do so. I’m glad our small green corner of the planet has made a commitment to doing just that.
J.R.R. Tolkien provided the ideal words to describe the in-between season in which we’re suspended right now: “… a morning of pale Spring still clinging to Winter’s chill.” Spring is officially here with the Spring Equinox, but mornings in the prairies and forests of the township can still feel as though we’re caught in the last weak grip of winter.
So this week, I thought I’d be on the lookout for sure signs of spring’s arrival and naturally, once I started looking, they were everywhere!
Birds Herald Longer Days with Song and Some Fancy Posturing
Arriving at Draper Twin Lake Park one cold, gray Sunday, my husband and I heard a very loud, clear rendition of the entire spring song of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). (Cardinals have a lot of calls. Listen to the second call listed at this Cornell link – that’s the one we heard.) This fellow seemed confident that he could woo the ladies and establish his territory at the same time with his full-throated singing! Look at that beak!
Male American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at our feeder are changing out of their modest winter attire into their breeding feathers. In a month or so, they’ll be bright yellow in the hope of interesting a female with an eye for color. Here’s a male on the bottom right perch of our thistle feeder who started changing his wardrobe in March. Perhaps the female on the bottom left perch will be interested? (The other birds are Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) who will migrate north before long.)
The buzzing trill of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaiusphoeniceus), which is accompanied by raising his red shoulder patches, is a common and beloved sign of spring here in Michigan. But last week I saw a male who was taking display to a whole new level. While calling, he also began awkwardly dancing along a branch, keeping his scarlet “epaulets” raised, occasionally fanning his tail, all in the interest of establishing a territory and showing off for some lucky female. What a guy! (Click through the slide show below to see the progression of his dance!)
Other birds establish dominance over other males with creative use of their necks! Below two newly arrived Common Grackles (Quiscalusquiscula) appear to be trying to “out-snoot” each other with their beaks tilted skyward! I think the one on the right is probably the winner here, don’t you? Or else the one the left is an uninterested female. It’s hard to tell.
Mark, a birding friend, told me that the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) at Stoney Creek Metropark were doing their dramatic neck displays as well. According to Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, Goldeneyes spend December to April in courtship groups where they form mating pairs by performing a lot of energetic neck movements. The male bends his neck backwards until his head lays on his back and then he snaps it forward, splashing water with his feet at the same time! The female responds by lowering her head and swinging it forward. Pretty dramatic courtship! I wasn’t able to get to the Metropark this week, but a kindly photographer from iNaturalist, who goes by Mike B, allowed us the use of this photo of a male taken near Chicago. These diving ducks are headed to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, just south of the Arctic.
Flocks of Birds – Large Ones and Small Ones – Fly Overhead and Forage in Our Parks
The birding group had an exciting Wednesday at Charles Ilsley Park when two huge flocks of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) flew overhead! Cornell says that these huge, all white swans with black beaks spent the winter on the Atlantic coast and are now headed to the Arctic tundra to build their nests and breed. Aren’t we lucky to be on their flyway?
Another birding friend, Mike Kent, took the photo below, because, wouldn’t you know, that was the day I decided to leave my camera at home!!! Look carefully at Mike’s photo because he caught a fascinating detail. We saw one lone Canada Goose (Brantacanadensis) traveling along with this huge flock of swans! You can just see its dark body in the upper left of the photo, third bird down. Hope this adventurous goose doesn’t plan to go all the way to the Arctic with its new-found friends!
That Wednesday was great for seeing big birds at Ilsley Park. Mike also caught for us a nice photo of a family of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) who settled at the bottom of a slope to rest and feed. The larger, darker birds to the right are probably the adults, while the two smaller gray ones on the left are probably last year’s young ones.
At Bear Creek Nature Park, smaller flocks were chatting in trees and foraging along the paths. A noisy group of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were snatching berries from a tree infested with invasive Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Some robins overwinter here and some migrate to southern Ohio and Kentucky. Some move back and forth all winter long. Though these non-native berries attract them during the winter, they unfortunately don’t provide much nutrition for the birds since thawing and freezing makes them very sugary. So migrating, in their case, might be a better choice!
On a path from the playground to the Walnut Lane at Bear Creek Nature Park, I saw my first flock of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). I love to listen to these tuneful birds in the spring, but have never before seen a flock of them in one area, as I did this week. They were “chicken-scratching” by scooting backwards with their feet in a ferocious attempt to get at some food beneath the surface -probably small seeds or insect eggs. The flock was so busy that the ground along the trail looked torn as they scraped their way down to the frozen surface, looking for food.
Buds are Swelling from Bare Branches – a Welcome Sign of Spring’s Arrival
Every year as spring approaches, I watch the Silver Maple (Acersaccharinum) to the right of the deck at Bear Creek’s Center Pond. It’s always one of the first trees to signal spring for me, its robust, red buds hanging gracefully from drooping branches over the water.
A small Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) near the pond has just barely thrust its leaf bud from the woody protection it had during the winter (left). In May, it will be a huge glorious bud (center), and in June, the green leaves will unfold into the sunlight (right). (Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Yes, It’s Muddy…but It’s S’posed to Be, Right?
It’s the end of March. Most of the ice on the surface is gone (at least for the moment!), but the ground is still frozen beneath. So rain and melting snow have nowhere to go. That makes for muddy shoes, smeared pant legs and cars decorated in various shades of brown. But hey, those signs announce that full-fledged, glorious spring is almost here! Birds are beginning to sing, dance, do a bit of neck gymnastics, don spring colors and wing their way north overhead in huge numbers. And trees are slowly waking from their roots, sending sugary sap up through their vascular systems, ripening their leaves for another summer of sun-gathering. All of nature, including us humans, have survived a very challenging, deep-freeze winter. Now’s the time to celebrate just being alive on a mudluscious walk in the pale sunshine of an early spring morning.
I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…
One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.
Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?
One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!
Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.
It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.
Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.
The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit” call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.
At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.) It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.
Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…
As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks. I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.
I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do. They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.
Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.
I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.
This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.
After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.
It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie. The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another. I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.
At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.
Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.
I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.
Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.
Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.
As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters. The tracks around it were hard to read . I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times. Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene. Just a guess.
One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.
The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.
If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others. Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie. It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.
On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface. Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.
The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring
I’ve begun learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers. Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?
Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.
Black-eyed Susans in bloom
Black-eyed Susan in winter – a lovely cone of seeds for the birds
Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.
For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much. I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.
I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.
I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden. They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters is represented in the winter photo below because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling. (Use pause button for captions.)
Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.
Well, that’s a start. I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!
See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…
Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk
It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning. There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.